Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Not Easy Being a Kid or a Cop Today

This column originally appeared in The Sun Chronicle on February 24, 2014

By Bill Gouveia

            It took jurors less than an hour last week to find North Attleboro high school student Patrick Skrabec not guilty of threatening to commit a crime and disturbing a school assembly.  He had been charged with making statements in his math class about shooting up the school in the days following the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in Connecticut.

            Now that his innocence has been established, the question becomes was Skrabec a victim of over-zealous prosecution on the part of local police and the district attorney?  Was he a victim of the hysteria and fear resulting from the shootings across the country and our changing ideas on security?  Or was he just a kid who said something stupid at an inappropriate time?

            While not professing in any way to be an expert on the situation, I think a strong case can be made for the third option.  Patrick Skrabec appears to be a good kid who made a dumb mistake and paid a high price for his actions.  Not as high as it could have been had the jury voted differently, but pretty severe nonetheless.

            In the aftermath of his ill-timed and ill-advised remarks, Skrabec was jailed without bail for six days over the Christmas holiday.  His was subjected to a dangerousness hearing at which time the DA attempted to keep him there, despite reports from witnesses that he had never been in trouble in or out of school.  He was initially charged with a felony, which was dropped two months later in favor of the reduced charges.

            His father is understandably upset over the situation, and blames police officials and the DA.  He said some of the North Attleboro police leaders should be “held to a higher standard of behavior,” and that the district attorney should be “embarrassed and ashamed.”

            Did police overreact to the situation?  That’s easy to say, but hard to determine.  When it is your job to be responsible for the safety of thousands of school children as well as the community as a whole, you don’t have a lot of room for error.  If you make a mistake in the wrong direction – people die.  Police officers and law enforcement officials live with that knowledge every day.

            That does not mean police or the DA’s office are exempt from doing their job carefully and professionally.  The rights of the individual in this society still mean something, despite our political and social shifts of the last decade or two.  No one should be subjected to frivolous or unwarranted arrest and detention.

            But just like you can’t yell fire in a crowded theater, you can’t talk about shooting up the school in your classroom these days.  It doesn’t matter that you are joking or don’t mean it.  The fact is if someone takes your remarks seriously, very bad things can happen.  Like the burden on police, the burden on our students is greater today than in the past.

            Skrabec’s attorney argued that “Maybe it was in poor taste and maybe it was inappropriate.  But that doesn’t mean he is a criminal or had criminal intent.”  While that is true, the word “maybe” is poorly used in this defense.  Seriously, counselor?  It was in poor taste, it was inappropriate.  But as a jury agreed, it did not make Patrick Skrabec a criminal.

            It is quite possible this whole affair will once again see the inside of a courtroom.  A civil suit is a distinct possibility, where the standard of proof will be different and the police and district attorney the ones on trial.  Here’s hoping that does not happen.

            And here is also hoping Patrick Skrabec graduates from North High this year and goes on to live a most happy and successful life.  He has no doubt learned that words – even those said in jest – can have serious consequences. 

            Let this also serve as a reminder that our kids are still children, and will make mistakes.  We have to be able to understand that and forgive them as well as be ready to act and punish when necessary.

            Our children have to grow up faster than ever these days, and that’s a shame.  It’s not easy being a kid or a cop in this world.

Bill Gouveia is a local columnist and can be emailed at aninsidelook@aol.com and followed on Twitter at @Billinsidelook.

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